By Mike Wise
Thursday, November 13, 2008
After the fans rose to put their hands together and raucously applaud a youngster they had never heard of five months ago, three words for Eddie Jordan:
Start the kid.
He's the only bona fide center the Wizards have. He's the only buzz generated from a buzz-kill start to a season. Even his name comes off the tongue nicely:
JaVale McGee, the Nevada rookie -- 84 inches of skill, sinew and serendipity.
The metabolism of a hamster, the length of the Pacific coastline, his age (20) is just two numbers ahead of his shoe size (18).
From the Silver State comes a 7-foot piece of gold.
McGee was but 11 months old when Jerry Sloan was named the Jazz coach in December 1988. Two hundred nineteen NBA coaching changes later, the kid is helping ensure Jordan does not become No. 220.
Facing the worst start in franchise history, worse than even last year's 0-5 eyesore, Jordan turned to his oh-so-young bench, which included McGee. Blocking three shots, changing the trajectory of at least 10 more, making Carlos Boozer think too much inside the paint, McGee played 27 of the most important minutes of his six-game pro career.
It wasn't the points (13) or rebounds (11) as much as it was the boundless energy and enthusiasm against the Western Conference's second-best team at the moment, the way most of the 14,000 or so who filed out of Verizon Center had the name of the kid on their lips.
Caron Butler and Antawn Jamison combined for 48 points and 17 rebounds, hit monstrous shots down the stretch and displayed the kind of veteran leadership necessary to pull their team from a serious opening funk. But the win was about McGee, how a sapling is already sprouting into a sturdy tree.
"We saw his learning curve in training camp," a visibly relieved Jordan said after his team's first victory. "Even then I said I've never seen, in all my NBA days, whether it was Kareem or George Johnson or any of the longest shot-blockers in the league, he was the longest and most athletic. He's really got an athletic base that's off the charts."
A couple of days before the season began, McGee leapt and gingerly dunked the ball in the basket before a shooting drill.
Closer inspection revealed that the goal was still being lowered from the ceiling, meaning McGee gingerly dunked the ball on a roughly 12-foot rim.
"Has your vertical leap ever been measured?" he was asked afterward.
"I think about 36 inches," he said. (David Thompson, one of the game's legendary skywalkers, also had a 36-inch vertical jump).
"What's the tallest basket you've ever dunked on?"
"I think about 12-6."
Twelve feet, six inches! That's 2 1/2 feet taller than the 10-foot regulation height.
It's doubtful Jordan will start McGee anytime in the near future because of something he calls "veteran reliability." Even if a player such as Etan Thomas can give him five or six solid minutes to start the game, the Wizards' coach is okay with keeping McGee coming off the pine.
But here's why he needs to start: This whole three-headed monster idea to compensate for the loss of injured Brendan Haywood is flawed in one serious way -- no other player than McGee is a natural pivot.
Andray Blatche receives too much blame for what ails the Wizards, especially given that he has to play a different role with Haywood out. But the fact is he wants to be Chris Webber and he's not even John Salley at this point. If he had one of those pogo-stick games, where all he did was use his energy to tip in misses underneath the basket, block shots and take the occasional 10-footer, fine. That's a player the Wizards could use.
Another small forward trapped in a 6-11, 250-pound frame? Not so much.
Thomas is big and strong and determined to make a difference. But his natural position is power forward and he just does not have the wingspan of a Cessna like McGee.
The only other genuine center in the building agreed.
"He is best draft choice by this organization in last 10 years," said 7-foot-7 Gheorghe Muresan in halting English. The native Romanian was once the NBA's most improved player in Washington and is now the world's tallest community-relations guest at halftime in the luxury boxes. "He has energy. He work very hard." Laughing, he added, "He might be the best draft choice for a big man since me."
But, Peter John Ramos? "McGee is not lazy," Muresan added.
There were no surprises here. The Wizards were in an entertaining scrap with the physical and disciplined Jazz, a team that plays together as well as Spain or the Spurs, circa 2005.
When people deign to mention that Jordan's job should be at stake, they really need to take a look at what was on the floor. At one point in the first half, their lineup was a gassed Jamison, Nick Young, Juan Dixon, Darius Songaila and Blatche. That's one legitimate NBA starter and four role players trying to hold court against two NBA all-stars and three solid veterans.
The Jazz is Pick-and-Roll and Pick-and-Pop U. of the NBA. Sloan basically turned Deron Williams and Boozer into Stockton and Malone, the sequel. They were playing a back-to-back after Philadelphia and Williams is still slow to return from injury, but when it mattered Utah was right there, in the middle of another scrum.
And the difference was not a Boozer putback or a Kyle Korver bomb from the perimeter; it was a 7-foot, 20-year-old running the floor with passion and purpose.
Proving he is indeed a rookie, McGee was whistled for a phantom foul by Jack Nies with 2:13 left. The kid stood there as Utah's Paul Millsap initiated contact along the baseline.
A veteran referee was the only thing that could thwart his boyish exuberance; veteran players surely couldn't contain it. If not tomorrow or next week, sometime in the next month Eddie Jordan really needs to rethink this one:
Start the kid. Soon. He essentially kick-started a season last night that badly needed a charge.